Monday, March 03, 2014


It is Theoretical Monday here at Scission.  With the situation heating up in the Ukraine, and unending, often uninformed debate tearing apart the left, I am going boldly...somewhere else entirely.

Today's piece dives into the brain, into the question of how human's make history, into the too often misused world of science, neurocapitalism, and with a little Karl Marx thrown in for good measure.  

I ran across this rather tasty morsel in an odd way.  Here is the short history lesson.  After I got out of prison in the 70s, the government believed I needed a better life plan than the one I was operating on (I had told them I was going back into the printshop).  I guess they had something against offset presses or something.  So,  I tried to find something that would satisfy them in the shortest amount of time and with the least pain possible.  Thus, it was back to school I went for a couple of years.  I ended up with a Counseling degree, mostly because I could work a real job, get a student loan, and finish off the thing in two short years.  I can't say I have ever used the thing since.  In the midst of it all, I once wrote this lengthy paper on Soviet Psychology (of course, I did).  Well, a couple of weeks ago I ran across on ye olde Web this women by the name of Hannah Proctor who has delved into that topic much, much deeper then I ever considered.  Turns out she is a rather interesting woman.  Her twitter account is worth checking out.  Lots of fascinating stuff there, some of it much less academic then elsewhere.  The New Inquiry describers her like this:

Hannah Proctor writes about revolutionary psychologies, neuronal ideologies and communist brains. She is working on a PhD on Soviet psychology and neurology at Birkbeck College, University of London.

At her research interests are listed as Marxism, History Of Psychology, Feminism, Russian History, Soviet History, Critical Theory, Queer TheoryContinental Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis.  Hmmm.

At a conference last year in Chicago  (From the New Socialist Person to Global Mental Health: the Psy-ences and Mental Health in East Central Europe and Eurasia), Dr. Proctor gave a scheduled presentation typical, I think, of the subject matters that seem to interest her most and which relates to the article I am posting below.

The Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies at the UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO (CERES) described it this way:

Hannah Proctor’s presentation reflected on history as a tool to critique the present. Coming from a perspective of “critical neuroscience” she stressed that history provides the means to denaturalize the current moment and thereby enable imaginations of alternative futures; a project she deemed particularly pertinent in the face of a contemporary neuroscience that produces a conception of the human consciousness that is largely ahistorical and depoliticized. In contrast with this conception, she drew on the work of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist of the 1920s and ‘30s, whose work, she argued, could provide an alternative paradigm as it situates human consciousness as emerging in a social and historical context. Vygotsky’s original aim to bridge the dynamics between materialism and idealism, between object and subject through a “dialectical psychology” provided Proctor with an angle from which to question the contemporary object-centered neuroscience, and what she perceived as an equally apolitical social science (i.e. actor-network theory) that erases the distinction between object and subject. Instead, Proctor insisted on the importance of maintaining a political subject that has the capacity to resist domination and articulate radical critique, which to her also meant insisting that the world can still “consciously be altered”.

If none of this interests you in the least, you might still read the following from MUTE.  There might be something there worth checking out.  You never know.  If nothing else it might help in the fight to keep your brain active...Again, you never know...

Oh, I should mention the co-author. Michael Runyan  recently completed an MA at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London. He lives in Berlin...and that's alls I knows about him.


By Hannah Proctor & Michael Runyan4 February 2014

Image: From the Connectome project, grounded in recent developments in MRI technology which allow for non-invasive 
visualisation of the anatomical connections between different parts of the brain

Humans make their own history, but contemporary philosophy seems to be adapting the neo-colonial perspectives of neuroscience to dismiss the idea this could ever be a conscious and system-antagonistic process, argue Hannah Proctor and Michael Runyan

Looking at nature under the categories of the commodity form, science affords precisely the technology on which hinges the controlling power of capital over production. It cuts up nature piecemeal by isolating its objects of study from the context in which they occur, ignoring nature in its importance as the habitat of society.1
– Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour

Brain: The Final Frontier

'As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.' So declared President Barack Obama in his speech launching the White House's BRAIN initiative, a $100 million project which aims to produce a dynamic map of the brain.2 Similar projects are also under way in the EU and China.3 The neurotech industry is booming. The race to unlock the mystery of the human brain has become a kind of inverted scramble for Africa. As with the protagonist in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, who as a child gazed longingly at the mysterious blank spaces on maps of the earth before setting out to seek his fortune in colonial Africa, the impulse to map is historically entwined with the impulse to dominate.

We may be far from discovering how the grey mass in our heads functions, but we nonetheless live in a world saturated with biological explanations for human behaviour. Mental and nervous diseases are being diagnosed on a record scale, the volume of psychotropic drugs and profits of the pharmaceutical industry are growing exponentially.4 The Fifth edition of the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was just published, an internationally recognised nosology, which exhaustively categorises psychic experience according to menus of symptoms, neat checklists that supposedly correspond to discrete conditions. The weighty tome piles taxonomy upon taxonomy and hurls them at our feet, considering supposedly abnormal behaviour in splendid isolation from the lives in which it occurs, as though mental disorders mysteriously oozed out of people from some internal reservoir of unknown origin.

In realms far beyond the medical sphere, the prefix is ubiquitous: neurolaw, neuromarketing, neuroethics. Novelists discuss John Donne's use of adverbs in relation to mirror neurons5, historians analyse the French Revolution by focusing on the evolutionary roots of emotions,6 and philosophers draw on neuroscientific case histories to bolster their claims about ontology.7 No-one could deny the numerous valuable applications of neuroscientific research – indeed, the people quickest to point to the limitations of our current understanding of the brain are often neuroscientists themselves – but we should question the tendency to describe all human feelings, thoughts and actions in purely neuronal terms.8 Rather than accepting a vision of subjectivity as identical with 'a bunch of neurons', we should question how such an understanding has come to be so widely accepted, examine the ideological positions it helps to uphold, and insist that it will never be sufficient for describing the qualitative richness of human experience, or to account for the palpitations of history that impact on that experience.9

Making History

‘Humans make their own history but they do not know that they make it' – Catherine Malabou's provocative polemic What Should We Do With Our Brain? begins by citing Marx.10 This ‘well-known dictum’ is repeated by Slavoj Žižek in his long discussion of the philosophical implications of contemporary neuroscience in The Parallax View.11 Neither author references the statement – so famous it transcends such conventions – but it appears to be a subtle alteration of a line from the beginning of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which should read: humans ‘make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.' Marx continues, ‘they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.'12 This is not intended as a pedantic Marxological jibe for the titillation of a tiny tribe of bearded old men with Lenin badges. Malabou’s modification, gamely parroted by Žižek, though seemingly minor, presents a fundamentally different understanding of human agency.

Image: A 'glass brain' rendering is used to present data captured by a Diffusion Tensor MRI:

For Marx, people can (and must) act consciously, they just cannot choose the historical circumstances in which they do so. Malabou contorts Marx’s phrase in order to make the claim that we are not conscious of the capacities of our own brains, which are nonetheless, she insists, an ‘agency within us'.13 Malabou identifies the brain’s capacities for creation, resistance and destruction, but despite these apparently disruptive properties, our brains remain irrevocably opaque. We might be 'living at the hour of neuronal liberation', but we do not and cannot know it.14

'The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living', Marx intones, but he insists that these ghosts might be exorcised through the discovery of a genuinely future-oriented revolutionary impulse that does more than merely parody the past.15 If, on the other hand, we follow Malabou's logic then we find that the nightmare is identical with the brains of the living; its weight cannot be lifted. Her vision of agency as inaccessible to consciousness, ultimately repeats rather than challenges the reigning orthodoxy of neuroscience, a strangely positivist position that, by conceiving of the world as driven by underlying natural processes, risks robbing humans of their capacity to consciously transform themselves and the world. But humans make their own history. We must insist on asking what we can do with our brains, rather than submitting to a paradigm that seems more concerned with finding out what our brains do with us.

Natural Disasters
Ernst Bloch noted that in the period of the Great Depression 'when Freud's Vienna became less carefree', there was a special psychoanalytic advice bureau established to deal with attempted suicides. The psychoanalytic patient was typically bourgeois and heretofore 'had to worry little about its stomach'. A sign hung on the wall that cautioned: 'ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL QUESTIONS CANNOT BE TREATED HERE.' But this, for Bloch, neglected to probe the very real psychological impact of economic crisis, which he insisted was far more likely to drive someone to commit suicide than a broken heart alone.16 This sign might also serve as an epigraph to the DSM-V. But despite serving certain class interests, at least psychoanalysis is concerned with history, with causation, with the external events that might contribute to the development of neuroses.

Malabou declares that in the contemporary moment, ‘politics is defined by the renunciation of any hope of endowing violence with a political sense’.17 The aetiology of psychological conditions is obscured. Social conflict is now, she claims, 'without dialectic, as anonymous as a natural catastrophe'.18 But rather than attempting to combat this condition, she merely diagnoses it. Power remains anonymous, inaccessible and therefore, ultimately, undefeatable.

The riots that swept England in August 2011 were frequently presented as if they were the result of a chaotic range of forces detached from political or social causality. But the very existence of riots seems to self-evidently refute Malabou's insistence on the totally disengaged qualities she associates with contemporary subjectivity.19 Smashing, burning and looting might not have a single coherent intention, but they certainly do not imply a blithe acceptance of the status quo. Yet somehow by depicting the rioters as feral animals marauding through the streets hungry for Nike Air Max, the mainstream media overwhelmingly presented the events as coming ex nihilo, only explicable in terms of pathological immorality. As a recent Endnotes article notes: 'No agency here; no reason; no will; no morality; no community: just a big hole in society into which the bad ones fall.'20

Endnotes observe that the rioters were typically defined by pure criminality, understood not as a certain form of action, but as an ontological attribute.21 Amid the sanctimonious cacophony, the braying calls for martial law, various newspapers reported that the 'impulsiveness' of the rioters might be attributed to low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in certain regions of the brain. A headline inThe Daily Mail bellowed: 'Some men may be more likely to riot because of their "impulsive" brains'.22This biological hypothesis framed the riots as a disaster whose origins could be sought in pre-existing natural structures. Here natural catastrophe is internalised, like a kind of cerebral plate tectonics.

The press cited research by scientists at Cardiff University, the results of which happened to be announced in a press release in the same week as the riots. The scientists responsible for the research were quick to condemn the casual deployment of their work in such a politically-charged context.23 But the episode demonstrates how easily neurological arguments can be mobilised as apparently authoritative, incontrovertible evidence.24 It proved less controversial to argue that imbalanced chemicals in people's brains cause dramatic social upheavals, than to suggest that such events might have anything to do with palpable social imbalances in the inequitable world beyond individual skulls. Criminality becomes an inherent biological disposition distinct from specific acts and their multifarious causes, an aberrant sickness in the supposedly natural habitat of society. But both mental and social disorders rely on some conception of order. You don't need Foucault to tell you where the criminal and the mad converge, how power is sustained by positing and punishing deviants.

Image: Jon Rafman, The 9 Eyes of Google Street View . The map defines what is valued and attempts to disavow what is not

Paul Gilroy has recently analysed the differences in rhetoric surrounding the British riot waves in 1981 and those in 2011. Both narratives relied on an understanding of criminality as pathological and downplayed empirical statistics testifying to exploitation, systemic racism, police harassment and economic deprivation. But Gilroy points to a shift in emphasis between the two moments: whereas in 1981 the discourse focused on intergenerational tensions within immigrant communities, by 2011 the burden of responsibility was placed on individuals rather than groups. This, he claims, corresponds with broader economic and social transformations: 'new norms specified by generalised individuation and privatisation were able to reframe the disorders as a brisk sequence of criminal events and transgressions that could be intelligible only when seen on the scale of personal conduct.'25

The increasing dominance of neuroscientific models as explanations of human behaviour can be seen as an important aspect in the trend towards individuation identified by Gilroy. By depicting human actions and desires as subtended by a material substrate, neuroscientific explanations participate in consolidating an ideological position that downplays historical contingency and human agency. The materiality of the brain is emphasised at the expense of the materiality of the world; a strange form of ahistorical materialism emerges. Neuroscientific arguments can provide extra ammunition for the already established tendency to de-contextualise events that threaten to disrupt the hegemonic order. And cloaked in the presumed neutrality of science, they often go unexamined.

Maps and Territories

After the launch of Google Street View, images circulated online of apparently incongruous things that appeared on the site. This meme derived its humour from the assumption that Street View depicted bizarre things that had no place on a map. But naked dancing, fires, parades, weddings, political protests, arrests and fast-food promotions requiring employees to dress-up as chickens happen, their exclusion from conventional maps is a limitation of that technology.

Conceived in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots, as an attempt to avoid precisely the kind of interpretation that would frame the events some inexplicable catastrophe, William Bunge's Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution foregrounded the limitations of conventional maps. Through a forensic analysis of one square-mile of the city, the book attempts to unpick the underlying causes of the riots. Traditional maps prefer fixed Capital to people, depicting space without time; places without seasons, weather conditions, vehicles, animals, humans and times of day. As Bunge underlines, the limitation of the map is its occlusion of the vivid details of lived history; the technology itself is a value-laden part of the social fabric he hoped to critique. His own project thus aimed to restore the warm flesh of human history to the cold bones of conventional cartography. But how might such an approach be applied to the warm flesh of the human mind itself, without, in the process, transforming dynamic subjects into static objects detached from history?

Sigmund Freud always insisted that the mind resisted figuration. In The Ego and the Id (1923) he inserts a diagram showing how the different components of the psyche relate to one another. But he immediately undermines the apparent clarity of the image by pointing to its limitations, declaring that 'the form chosen has no pretensions to any special applicability'.26 A rather different diagram appears in his later lecture 'Dissection of the Psychical Personality'. Again, Freud is quick to dismiss his 'unassuming sketch',insisting that any attempt to draw a diagram of the mind is doomed to fail.27 'We cannot do justice to the characteristics of the mind by linear outlines', he claims, suggesting that modern painting might provide a better visualisation than line drawing, with its 'areas of colour melting into one another.'28

Even metaphors founder. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud attempts to describe the preservation of memories in the Unconscious by invoking Rome the 'Eternal City', in which fragments of ancient buildings distorted, destroyed or damaged over time, exist alongside the newest constructions. But he is forced to abandon the analogy, as it fails to capture the simultaneity of the Unconscious, in which the Piazza of the Pantheon could accommodate all the successive versions of the structures it has contained, including the emptiness that preceded them, in one space. Such attempts to describe the Unconscious, Freud is forced to conclude, are little more than an 'idle game', the only justification for which might be to demonstrate 'how far we are from mastering the characteristics of mental life by representing them in pictorial terms'.29

But now we are apparently closer to this mastery. Our brains are frequently represented as areas of colour melting into one another, rendered not in paint but liquid crystal. Glance through the magazines in any airport lounge or scroll through the news pages and you will encounter any number of these images: bright blotches emerging from a stark grey background like pools of lava or patches of lurid foliage on a mysterious and hostile planet. That red section on the left or green spot on the right signifies what happens when you participate in a riot, read Keats, tell a lie, choose a new washing detergent, dream, or take too much ecstasy.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) measures brain activity based on the flow of oxygen-rich blood in tiny regions of the brain; the more cerebral activity there is in a particular part of the brain, the more blood it requires. The magnetic properties of blood allow for images to be generated. An algorithm transforms heat into colour. These images are then reconstructed, correcting any distortions caused by head movement or other forms of 'noise'. The vibrant false-colour images we are familiar with result from extensive mathematical manipulation. Although the limitations of fMRI 'brain porn' are well-documented30 – one report even claims that it is possible to obtain dramatic fMRI images from dead fish31 – unlike in Freud's works, caveats rarely accompany these visions of the brain. They implicitly assume the appearance of transparent representations of consciousness, functioning as 'truth documents' in which the identity of map and territory is taken for granted.32Neurological evidence is increasingly being used in court, recalling the Victorian phrenologists who sought explanations for misconduct in skull contortions.33 These strange, alien-looking images, we are told, somehow coincide with us. But as Hilary and Steven Rose note:

Even when they attempt to be at their most social, their methodology is essentialist. The complexities of lived experience are reduced to toy problems amenable to experimental manipulation but in the process emptied of real life reference.34

Just as Bunge pointed to the limitations of conventional geographical maps, it is important to recognise what such images elide, to note the contexts in which they are deployed and to ask why and by whom they are being produced.

Alberto Toscano has discussed the opacity of High Frequency Trading images which, he argues, act as 'ciphers of our incomprehension more than visual articulations of relations open to cognition and intervention'.35 Despite the ubiquity of these images, the billions of transactions in our algorithmic and consumer markets, like the billions of neurons firing in the brain fundamentally resist representation. Rather than elevating science to something beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond reproach, acknowledging the fundamental resistance of the mind to even the most technically sophisticated and specialised modes of figuration is a recognition that something always exceeds any attempt to finally comprehend human nature. That something is the qualitative in all its quivering particularity, that scientific abstraction strives but never succeeds in eliminating.

Cerebral Economies

Susan Buck Morss credits French physiocrat François Quesnay with the first attempt to map the economy in 1758. Quesnay, like many early political economists, was a physician who employed biological analogies to describe the circulation of wealth, implying the financial system functioned like a natural phenomenon.36 Descriptions of the brain as an intricate unhierarchical network with billions of nodes firing information at super-fast speeds, clearly overlap with descriptions of contemporary Capitalism.

Image: The contemporary understanding of the brain is inextricable
from the network

In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello discuss the coincidence of descriptions of the brain with descriptions of the current economic configuration, noting that such vocabularies serve to naturalise the present social situation, making it seem impervious to change, and thus undermining the human capacity to intervene in the course of history.37 Malabou expands on this insight, observing that representations of the brain in the 'mainstream press'38 accord with the economic reality of 'part-time jobs, temporary contracts, the demand for absolute mobility and adaptability, the demand for creativity',39 justifying an economic system that places ever greater pressures on people to accommodate increasingly precarious conditions. But her neat distinction between popular and scientific understandings of the brain, ultimately fails to explore the socially and economically embedded nature of scientific research itself.

The question of the entanglement of neuroscientific methodologies and findings with the capitalist economy remains to be adequately posed. Crucial to this question is the reliance of neuroscientific research on economic structures and political institutions. As Martin Hartmann declares:

We are presently witnessing […] the rise of a form of 'neurocapitalism' that binds pharmaceutical interests, neuroscientific research, and the pressures of a growing commodification of the self together in a rather unhealthy alliance.40

Research methodologies reflect political and social categorisations, and the results of that research can be harnessed for various ends.

Brain Power

The convergence of brain and computer has created a feedback loop between the two: our cultural reading of neuroscience is completely dependent on the computer, while the development of artificial intelligence systems mimics the functionality of the brain. Network models, functioning at the scale of the corporate internet, can be used to understand how brains function, but can also simulate it in order to create new artificial intelligences.41 The connectome, a comprehensive dynamic map of neuronal connections in the brain, is seen not only as the representation or image of the brain but crucially as a dataset.42 Massive amounts of parallel computing power is used to process, analyse, and classify the world into datasets specifically tailored to add intelligence to our devices. Our increasingly ergonomic smartphones are now relying on it for image and speech recognition as major players like Google hope that the concept can be deployed beyond the revenue model of their core services. We may be far from being able to upload information to the brain but neuromarketing is a burgeoning industry, using technologies like eye-tracking and predictive and behavioral analytics, in order to model, guess and eventually guide what, when and how we consume.43 Attention pays, it has become a marketable commodity in its own right.44 But the gamble of neuromarketing is more insidious, for it hopes that neurotechnology will eventually be able to access our desires, no longer understood as delving into the subconscious but as mining data from the subcortex.

Obama's speech inaugurating the BRAIN initiative emphasised America's apparently exceptional capacity for innovation, framed in relation to economic growth and job creation: 'Ideas are what power our economy. It's what sets us apart.'45 Like brain tissue following an injury, in the wake of a serious economic crisis Americans adapt to external circumstances by creating new connections that seek to repair and overcome the damage caused by supposedly unforeseen external events. Obama cited the success of the Human Genome Project, which he claims brought $140 to the US economy for every $1 spent. But this neat cost-benefit analysis fails to acknowledge the limitations of the project that has not only failed to live up to its promise in terms of medical application46 but has also opened the floodgates for 'the global commodification of bioinformation,'47 where patent wars are fought to turn life into intellectual property. Meanwhile, government DNA data banks are growing, and venture capitalists are profiting from retail genomics – 'Knowledge is Power', proclaims one such website which offers DNA testing for $99.48

$50 million of the $100 million being pledged for the BRAIN initiative will come from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The only part of Obama's speech pertaining to military applications of neuroscience was a reference to helping veterans with PTSD. This, of course, is already value-laden – focusing on ameliorating the effects of supposedly inevitable trauma rather than protesting at the violent events that produce traumatic responses in the first place – but neuroscientists are also involved in research aimed at enhancing performance on the battlefield, controlling weapons in new ways, and on monitoring, torturing and attacking the enemy. Neuroscience might indeed provide new and important methods for healing people, but it might equally facilitate surveilling them, profiting from them or even killing them more effectively.

Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar's seminal Laboratory Life established the importance of reconnecting scientific facts to the mundane sites from which they emerged, ripping open black boxes to reveal the swirling tangled mess they contain. But Latour's emphatic prioritisation of the local over the global has less to offer a project intending to identify the complex relations between scientific knowledge and structural forms of oppression.49 Here a totally different angle is provided by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who locates the conceptual foundations of modern science in the historical emergence of the commodity form, arguing that abstraction originates in the act of exchange. The formal qualities of economic (real) abstraction engender the (ideal) abstract categories of quantifying natural science, which subsequently becomes an internalised aspect of human cognition. Nature is thus ahistoricised, approached as if ruled by ideal standards. Sohn-Rethel's eccentric thesis provocatively suggests that notions of timeless universal logic might be tied to historically contingent economic forms. It is not simply that scientific research is motivated by profit-making, but the very way objects are observed and understood is conditioned by economic structures. But how then does experience of the world modify our cerebral structures?

Paying Attention

Celebrated neuroscientist Susan Greenfield recently published 2121, a turgid science fiction novel set in a future in which humans have lost their capacity for understanding, compassion and contemplation. The erosion of human individuality was caused by increased use of social media and digital technologies. Computer interfaces re-modelled people's brains, reducing humans to sorry creatures seeking quick thrills but drained of any capacity for real feeling. It might seem easy enough to dismiss Greenfield's misty-eyed attitude and the hysterical tabloid news articles this kind of work has spawned, especially as she has admitted that her proclamations are not based on actual research,50 but the same basic sentiments can be found in more surprising places too.

Doyen of network theory Manuel Castells has recently turned to neurological arguments to support his theories about social structures, declaring glibly: 'We are networks connected to a world of networks'.51 A specific autonomist-influenced strain of contemporary theory is quick to make bold pronouncements about post-Fordism's apparently unique capacity to sculpt the brain in its own image. But claiming that 'the possibility for neural sculpting' is exceptionally great under 'conditions of networked and distributed systems', takes for granted the particular vocabularies and visualisations of the brain those systems produce.52

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi – and he is far from alone53 – notes that emerging networked business practices function like a brain: 'pieces of information... resemble the interconnected neurons in the brain.'54 And this is more than a mere analogy: the biological and the digital are becoming interwoven. We are post-human. We are cyborgs.55 Now machinic evolution is beginning to outpace humans who are left desperately panting to catch up. The progressive merging of organic and digital systems has led to an 'infernal mutation' of the human brain.56

It is a familiar story: in a world of abundant information our ability to process it all is apparently diminishing. We are overwhelmed by stimuli, glued to our screens, scrolling wildly between tabs, constantly switching interfaces, dreaming in Tweets, sucking in information in ever tinier chunks. It is all too much, too fast. We are saturated. The more we are connected, the less we connect. We are exhausted yet we cannot sleep. We can no longer concentrate, reflect, understand. We are even, Berardi insists, incapable of love. Our brains are re-wired by this constant information assault but they begin to crack under the pressure to accelerate. New pathologies and their attendant acronyms – ADD, PTSD, ADHD, etc – proliferate.

Where Berardi departs from the typical Daily Mail article is in his insistence on the economic dimension of these new neuroses: 'From the time when capitalism connected to the brain, the latter incorporated a pathological agent, a psychotic meme that will accelerate pulsations even to tremors, even to collapse.'57 In his narrative, brain is replacing brawn, contemporary cognitive capitalism therefore relies on neuronal harmony, more than previous modes of production: 'Your psychic suffering didn't matter much to capital when you only had to insert screws and handle a lathe.'58 But in practice the new subjectivities Berardi discerns seem to emerge with new hyper-fast technologies rather than the market they now propel. Of course, the two are intrinsically linked but Berardi does not provide a cogent account of how subjectivity is produced by particular economic configurations.

Berardi does align psychological with economic crisis, but he focuses on the psychologies of the speculators themselves, wired up on Adderall in some Manhattan skyscraper. This recalls Bloch's comment about the Viennese bourgeoisie who rarely needed to think about their stomachs. The mental well-being of many people will certainly be impacted by the experience of economic crisis, but more likely those who get left behind than those with the luxury of being able to keep up. Berardi does not question the new categories for understanding psychological suffering, treating them as transparent descriptions of new forms of psychological experience rather than ideologically mediated. Obfuscating the economic and social explanations for particular forms of behaviour, such descriptions place the onus on individuals to adjust to the world, rather than suggesting that the world itself might be the thing that needs changing.

Changing Our Minds?

For Michel Serres, the last space left to explore is that traversed by the imagination, a ruined, incommensurable, unmappable space 'constellated by symbols, charted by phantasms'; an 'initiatory, fabulous and extraordinary' landscape explored by the solitary remembering subject who he likens to Moses in the desert, Orpheus in the underworld or Alice in Wonderland.59

But these intrepid adventurers, like the vaunted scientific-discoverer, are isolated individuals on solitary quests. Instead, perhaps the vast and unmappable terrains of the imagination, spilling out from our minds into the world, might be explored collectively. We need to challenge a scientific paradigm that treats humans as biologically determined, isolated entities who are governed by the chemicals in their heads. Of course, it might be the case that when we imagine something synapses fire in a certain region of our brain, but in what way does knowing that really help us to create new worlds (or to destroy existing ones)?

Hannah Proctor is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London. She works on the history of Soviet psychology and neurology. She is currently collaborating on a film about Post-Communist Eastern Europe. @hhnnccnnll twitter/tumblr/instagram

Michael Runyan <m1r320 AT> recently completed an MA at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London. He lives in Berlin

1 Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, London: Macmillan Press, 1978, p.80.
4 Interestingly though, major pharmaceutical companies have announced the withdrawal of funding to develop new drugs for schizophrenia and depression. See Hilary and Steven Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains, p.249.
5 A.S. Byatt, 'Observe the Neurons: Between, above, below John Donne', Times Literary Supplement, 22 September 2006. Ian McEwan's Saturday, Vintage, 2006, is an example of recent literature enamoured with neurology.
6 Lynn Hunt, 'The Experience of Revolution', French Historical Studies,Vol. 32, No. 4, Fall 2009, pp.671-678.
7 Paul Churchland is the most obvious example. See also, Thomas Metzinger's Being No-one: The Self-Theory Model of Subjectivity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
8 For works offering critiques of the current neuronal paradigm see: Suprana Choudury and Jan Slaby (ed.) Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2012; Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinistis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Durham: Acumen, 2011; Fernando Vidal, ‘Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity’, History of the Human Sciences, vol. 22, no. 1, 2009, Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007; and Hilary and Steven Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology, London; Verso, 2012.
9 'You are nothing but a bunch of neurons', Francis Crick famously declared in The Astonishing Hypothesis, London: Schuster and Schuster, 1994.
10 Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? Sebastian Rand (trans.), New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, p.3.
11 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax ViewCambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2006, p.209.
12 Karl Marx, The 18thBrumaire of Louis Bonaparte, We do not believe this discrepancy is a translation issue. Marx’s original German reads: ‘Die Menschen machen ihre eigene Geschichte, aber sie machen sie nicht aus freien Stücken’, this is translated into French as ‘Leshommes font leur propre histoire, mais ils ne la font pas arbitrairement’, whereas Malabou’s French reads: ‘...mais il ne savent pas qu’ils la font’. Catherine Malabou, Qui faire de notre cerveau?, Paris: Bayard, 2004, p.16.
13 Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, p.8.
14 Malabou, ibid.
15 Karl Marx, The 18thBrumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
16 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Volume 1, Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knights (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995, p.66.
17 For a detailed critique of Malabou's recent work on destructive plasticity see, Hannah Proctor, 'Review: The Post-Traumatic Condition', Radical Philosophy, 177, January 2013.
18 Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded, New York: Fordham University Press, 2012, p.161.
19 Malabou claims the 'new wounded', a term that applies literally to brain injured people and figuratively to contemporary subjectivity in general, are defined by affectless detachment: 'beyond sorrow, [they fall] into a state of apathy that is no longer either joyful or despairing. They become indifferent to their own survival.' Malabou, The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity , Polity, Cambridge, 2012, p.27.
20 'A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats', Endnotes III, November 2013, pp.74-75.
21 Endnotes III, p.84
The Sun retracted its article following a complaint from the scientists. Pieces citing the research also appeared in the Indian, Russian, Malaysia, Polish and Finnish press.
24 This was not the only example of neuroscientific arguments being used to draw conclusions about the riots. Unlike the example cited above, which was denounced by the neuroscientists themselves, some scientists did publish work which linked the rioters behaviour to inherent neurological structures. See, for example: and . A recent research project conducted by Queen Mary University aimed to explore 'whether gang violence is related to psychiatric illness': . A more nuanced discussion, alert to the dangers of de-contextualising the events is:
25 Paul Gilroy, '1981 and 2011: From Social Democratic to Neoliberal Rioting', South Atlantic Quarterly, 2013, 112(3):550-558, p.555. Endnotes' narrative also relies heavily on Gilroy's indispensible There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, University of Chicago Press, 1987.
26 Sigmund Freud, 'The Ego and the Id', The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud : Early psycho-analytic Publications Vol. 1X1923-1925, the ego and the id and other works, James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (ed. and trans.), London: Vintage, 2001, pp.3-67, p.28.
27 Freud, 'New Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis' Standard Edition, Volume XXII (1932-1936): New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and Other Works, ed by James Strachey; Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, London: Vintage, 2001, pp.1-182, p.72.
28 Freud, 'New Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis', p.78.
29 Sigmund Freud, 'Civilization and its Discontents', Standard Edition, Volume XXI (1927-1931), in,The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works, James Strachey; Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (eds.), London: Vintage, 2001, pp.1-182, p.72.
30 See, for example, William R.Uttal, The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain, Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2003.
31 C.M. Bennett, A.A. Baird, M.B. Miller and G.L. Wolford, 'Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in Post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument for Multiple Comparisons Correction', Society for Neurosciences Abstracts, 2009, quoted in Genes, Cells and Brains, p.254.
32 This characterisation of mapping appears in M. Dodge, R. Kitchin and C. Perkins ed., Rethinking Maps , London; Routledge, 2009.
33 fMRI is now being used as a form of lie detector:
34 Hilary and Steven Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains, p.245.
35 Alberto Toscano, 'Gaming the Plumbing: High Frequency Trading and the Spaces of Capital',Mute, 16 January 2013,
36 Susan Buck-Morss, 'Envisioning Capital', Critical Inquiry, 21.2, 1995, pp.434-467. This use of biological metaphors might be contrasted with Marx's use of language in Das Kapital. Keston Sutherland discusses Marx's use of the term 'Gallerte' as a metaphor for abstract human labour. Unlike the term 'congealed' familiar from English translations of Marx which suggests a natural process, Gallerte, a 'tremulous mass' derived from boiling animal substances, is, Sutherland insists, emphatically disgusting, an unnatural excrescence that, once created, cannot return to its original state. Keston Sutherland, Marx in Jargon:
37 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism , London; Verso, 2007, pp.149-50.
38 Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, p.3.
39 Malabou, ibid., p.4.
40 Martin Hartmann, 'Against First Nature: Critical Theory and Neuroscience' in Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby (ed.), Critical Neuroscience, p.82.
44 See, Tiziana Terranova, 'Attention, Economy and the Brain', Culture Machine, vol. 13, 2012, pp.1-19.
47 Hilary and Stephen Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains, p.183.
49 For a discussion of the political limitations of Bruno Latour see, Benjamin Noys, 'The Discreet Charm of Bruno Latour, or Critique of Anti-Critique, Presented as a Paper at Centre of Critical Theory, Nottingham, December 8 2011.
50 For a scathing review of Greenfield's venture into fiction, see: Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think (London; Atlantic Books, 2011), a Pulitzer Prize exploration of the cognitive impact of the internet, already popularised the thesis that technology is not only eroding concentration, but sapping our compassion.
51 Manuel Castells, Communication Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p.139. Castells rather alarmingly declares that: 'power is constructed, as all reality, in the neural networks of our brain', as though coercion had no existence beyond cognition. p.145.
52 Warren Neidich, 'Sculpting the Brain and I Don't Mean Like Rodin' , Shifter 16, April 2010, pp.173-187, p.174. For more examples of this theoretical tendency see the collection Cognitive Architecture: From Bio-politics to Noo-politics, Deborah Hauptmann and Warren Neidich, (eds.), Rotterdam: 010, 2010.
53 See, for example, Mark Fisher's comments in a recent interview with Bifo, Bernard Stiegler's recent work and Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, London: Basic Books, 2010.
54 Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of post-alpha generation, Arianna Bove (trans.), London; Minor Compositions, 2009, p.36.
55 An overview of literature dealing with the increasing convergence of the biological and the digital, much of it far more nuanced than Bifo's work, is beyond the scope of this discussion. The following texts all provide important insights into hybridity, albeit without necessarily focusing specifically on the neuronal: Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect, Cambridge; Polity, 2012,, N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics , Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999, Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Catherine Porter (trans.), New York, NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, Eugene Thacker, Biomedia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2004.
56  Berardi, op. cit., p.37.
57 Ibid, p.38.
58 Ibid, p.43.
59 Michel Serres, 'Jules Verne's Strange Jouneys', Yale French Studies No. 52, Graphesis: Perspectives in Literature and Philosophy, 1975, pp.174-188, p.176.

Aesthetic Education Expanded is a series of 12 articles commissioned by Mute and published in collaboration with, Kontrapunkt, Multimedia Institute, and Berliner Gazette. It is funded by the European Commission. A central site with all contributions to the project can be found here: 
The series looks at the contemporary afterlife of the project of ‘aesthetic education’ initiated in the 19th century, from the violent imperatives of training and ‘lifelong learning’ imposed by capitalism in crisis to informal projects of resistance against neoliberal pedagogy and authoritarian repression.
Expanding the scope of the aesthetic in the tradition of Karl Marx to include everything from anti-austerity riots and poetry to alternative and self-instituted knowledge dissemination, the series encompasses artistic, theoretical and empirical investigations into the current state of mankind’s bad education.
Aesthetic Education Expanded attempts to open up an understanding of what is being done within and against capital’s massive assault on thought and action, whether in reading groups or on the streets of a world torn between self-cannibalisation and revolt.  

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